In Other Countries, Kids in Wealthier Schools Do Better Than Kids in Poorer Schools. Huge Surprise, Right?

Released today, the latest international studies of students in math, science, and reading (TIMMS and PIRLS) actually make interesting reading. You can find the the math report (TIMMS) here and the reading and literacy report here. They are pretty long.

Unfortunately and as usual, the few on-line and printed reports ABOUT the studies seem to be cherry-picking data to find what they want — much like pundits pontificating and bloviating on TV the exact same ‘talking points’, whether there’s any evidence for what they believe or not. I just saw a headline: “More Bad News for US Students.”

At least I try to look at the data itself.

A brief quote from the TIMMS ‘executive summary’, which is as far as I had gotten when I first wrote this yesterday morning:

Home Resources Strongly Related to Mathematics Achievement

Research consistently shows a strong positive relationship between achievement and indicators of socioeconomic status, such as parents’ or caregivers’ level of education. At the fourth and sixth grades, TIMSS used the parents’ reports on the availability of key home resources to create the Home Resources for Learning scale, including parents’ education, parents’ occupation, books in the home, and study supports. Internationally, on average, the 17 percent of students with Many Resources had substantially higher mathematics achievement than the nine percent with Few Resources—a 119-point difference. However, 
almost three-quarters of the fourth grade students (74%) had Some Resources.
At the eighth and ninth grades, TIMSS asked the students themselves about their parents’  education, books in the home, and study supports, with similar results. Internationally, the twelve percent of eighth grade students with Many Resources had the highest average achievement, the two-thirds with Some Resources had the next highest achievement,  and the one-fifth with Few Resources had the lowest average achievement.

Note that this is in ALL of the countries: kids from poorer backgrounds do less well in school, and the inverse: wealthier kids do better in school. All over the world, not just in the USA.


Here are the tables that accompanied that text:



Now that I’ve had a bit more time to look at the data, I see that at the fourth grade, I can look at reported differences between average scores at schools where the principal says the kids come from wealthier families, and average scores at schools where the principal says the students come from more disadvantaged families. It’s one way of estimating what the famous rich-poor achievement gap is like in various nations, but we should be cautious with the data: it all has pretty large standard deviations according to TIMMS itself, meaning that the various bars in this graph are likely to be, in reality, much higher or much lower than this chart (which I made using the data in exhibit 5.3, page 514).

grade 4 rich poor schools gap TIMMS


If this information is accurate, the US has a somewhat larger ‘math poverty’ gap than most other countries, but it’s by no means the worst. And it also shows that lots of other countries actually have similar achievement gaps in 4th grade math between two groups of schools:

Quoting from the report:

… the More Affluent schools had more than one-fourth of their students from affluent home backgrounds and not more than one-fourth from disadvantaged home backgrounds, and the More Disadvantaged schools had the reverse situation. The other schools were “in between.” Internationally, the students were distributed relatively equally across the three types of schools. On average, across countries at the fourth grade, 36 percent of the students attended schools with relatively more affluent students than disadvantaged students, and students in these schools had the highest average achievement (508). At the other end of the range, 30 percent of the students attended schools with relatively more disadvantaged students than affluent students, and students in these schools had the lowest average achievement (470). Although this overall achievement pattern was observed in most countries and benchmarking participants, there was a wide variation among participants in the percentages of students attending the three different economic categories of schools.


  1. The sky isn’t falling,
  2. US schools are neither the best nor the worst in the world.
  3. This data (like most educational dat) is actually quite fuzzy.
  4. All around the world, it appears that wealthier kids these days generally tend to do better in math at the 4th grade than poorer kids.
Published in: on December 12, 2012 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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